Strategy games go hand in hand with war and conflict. Why is this and what are the alternatives?
The majority of strategy games revolve around conflict and war. It’s hard to even name a non-violent strategy game outside of abstract games like Go or Draughts. Even these games are arguably an abstraction of conflict, pitting two players in direct opposition.
War and conflict are historic realities and sadly will continue to be in the future. So it’s right for games to explore this space. Without wanting to diminish the terrible impact of other wars, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has particular echoes of the kind of “big fish eats the little fish” dynamic actively encouraged by grand strategy games like Europa Universalis or 4X games such as Civilization. So it’s pertinent to ask if it’s possible to make strategy games that are not war-centric.
As well, strategy games teach a variety of useful skills around planning and adapting plans, thinking in terms of the big picture, and learning about systems and interconnectedness. All these things have application in every day life, quite aside from war.
Other sister genres to strategy games manage to teach similar skill sets in non-violent ways. For example business sims like transport tycoon, and city builders like Cities:Skylines. What binds most of these games together is that they are about resource management. Within that, land is the most important resource for 4X and grand strategy games. Broadly speaking, the more land a player has, the greater their potential power.
Players still need to exploit that land, and not all land is made equal. However, land being zero-sum – there can only be one owner, and no way to make new land – pushes players to compete for it. This manifests itself in land-grab races reminiscent of historical colonialism. Or just straight up wars for territory.
In city builders like Cities:Skylines, there are no other rival cities to make war on. The map is of limited size, so players compete with themselves for land. Or to frame it another way, the different priorities of the city and it’s simulated citizens compete for the player’s attention. A strategy game could work similarly on the scale of a country or region, though might feel more like a simulation or sandbox-type game. As well, city builders are not immune to war, such as the impressions games Caesar and Pharaoh, or games like the Tropico and Anno series.
Equally, in single player at least, rival factions can be replaced by other types of challenge. For example, a planet-destroying asteroid or deadly disease. This kind of “player vs environment” type play common in many genres and is what we did in Critias Empire, having players face off against the threat of natural disasters.
Alternatively, the ancient Gods spawning those natural disasters in Critias Empire can be thought of as an asymmetrical “antagonist” faction. They aren’t trying to “win” the game or even necessarily make the player lose. But still have their own agenda.
Another option is to make land, or rather the resources on it, shared rather than exclusive. Transport tycoon is a good example where players can choose to compete directly for a single source of resources, but for the trade-off that they share the limited output equally, making it more beneficial to go where there is no competition.
As well, in transport tycoon, when cities grow over time, it benefits all players. While some strategy games have neutral city states or minor factions, they tend to be set up for players to compete over and eventually subsume or conquer.
Shared resources also don’t necessarily have to come from land. For example, the board game Santa Maria has players share a pool of dice. All dice are rolled at the start of a round, and players then take it in turn to pick a a single die of their choice. The dice then generate resources based on how the player has built their base. Players only sometimes compete directly, and even if a player doesn’t get exactly the dice they want, they still get something.
A Different Victory
Many strategy games offer paths to victory that don’t involve war or destroying rivals. For example building a wonder type building in Age of Empires triggers a countdown to victory for that player. However other players are then obliged to wage war on the player with the wonder in order to prevent them winning.
As well, these alternative paths to victory usually require a large amount of resources, which ultimately derive from land.
An arguably better approach would have victory achieved by composite score, with many different elements contributing to that score. This allows players to compete along different axes; sometimes directly and other times indirectly or not at all. This works well in board games like Santa Maria or Wingspan, where there are a fixed number of rounds and enough hidden information and opportunities to catch up that victory is rarely certain for any one player until the final scores have been calculated.
Measuring victory by a combination of human development indicators like health and education for example, would be more befitting for a game with a name like “Civilization”. As opposed to being the first to build a space rocket to another planet, with the implied message that ever more growth and taking land is just to be continued in space.
Victory could be achieved by preventing war or conflict. What if a game put players in the shoes of the commander of a UN peacekeeping mission?
Or perhaps victory could be shared, or measured by how much each player contributes to a shared goal, such as reducing (or reversing) greenhouse gas emissions. This would be arguably more relevant and realistic to the times we live in than sending a colony ship to Alpha Cenauri (though this is also something that would almost certainly be beyond the capability of any one nation and need global cooperation).
Terra Nil is a fantastic example of a non-violent game that has the player “cleaning up” the environment and returning it to a pristine state. It does a great job of “re-theming” the city-builder genre, away from an unsustainable ever-more-growth model. However, it misses the human element – there is no need to balance the needs of simulated citizens, which puts it into the fantasy box of “wouldn’t things be easier if there were no people?”
Many years ago, I heard a theory that destruction in video games is so common because it has a tangible, visceral impact on the virtual game world. When an enemy dies, or a building is destroyed, it’s permanent. Without that feeling of being able to affect the world, the player can feel like a ghost, detached and unable to immerse themselves in the game.
Creation can give that same feeling of having an impact on the world, which helps explain why games like Minecraft and Sim City are just as popular as the latest man-shooter.
Many of my favourite strategy games are about building – an empire, a city, a business. My hope is in the future, more of those will let me build without it being at other’s expense.